A group of students recently confronted school leaders about racial inequity that they say is common in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District.
The students, in a presentation labeled “Reimagine Minnesota Student Reflection,” told the board about the problems students of color routinely face in the district. They said that non-white students are unfairly put in lower-level classes, that they don’t get equal access to student groups and they get in trouble easier because they’re held accountable for actions other students aren’t.
The group of students had been invited to present at the April 27 school board meeting about their experiences at the Reimagine Minnesota Student Conference, which was a community conversation in February that included several districts from around the state; in March there was a larger, related event called “Reimagine Minnesota.”
Board Member Jim Schmid asked a pointed question of one of the district’s principals, Chris Bellmont of Gideon Pond Elementary School, who was there for a different but related matter. He was there sharing his story about going through a training called “Culturally Proficient School Systems."
“They’re saying we do this in our schools,” Schmid said. “As a principal, how do you respond to that?”
Bellmont responded by saying he’s seen examples and glimpses of what the students talked about. Prior to his work at Gideon Pond, he also taught at Burnsville High School and Burnsville Alternative High School.
“I cannot for a second know what it’s like to be in their shoes but I can continue to listen and try to change our behavior going forward,” said Bellmont, who is white.
The district’s student population is 57 percent students of color, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. But the leadership and staff don’t reflect the population. The school board is all white. The district’s administration is largely white. And many teachers within the district are white, though board chairwoman Abigail Alt said the district is working on recruiting more teachers of color. She also said they’re also awaiting the next generation of teachers to arrive, expressing hope for a greater pool of non-white instructors to hire from in the future.
Nine non-white Burnsville High School students got up to the microphone at the April 27 meeting to tell the school board what they thought. They are all from a group called Burnsville Youth for Cultural Awareness.
One student recounted how he wasted a year on lower-level math classes even though he had successfully taken calculus — all because the district found his language skills not up to par. Another student shared that student clubs need better staff support so the clubs are successful. They also pointed out the need for an African-American cultural liaison and a need for more racially diverse staff.
In response to their presentation, Board Member Darcy Schatz — who is white — told the students that her term is up in four years. She said she would like the students to find a person of color to run against her.
“You’ve been heard,” Schatz said. “Continue what you are doing. You have some great points and some great, really concrete and clear objectives and outcomes that you’d like to see happen and that's exactly what we need.”
Superintendent Joe Gothard said he’s proud of the students and the report. Other board members expressed thankfulness for the students’ voices.
“That was really, really courageous sharing,” Alt said.
She told the students they can always push the leadership and she hopes to sustain a conversation about these issues over time.